The right knee injury Sunday to running back Le'Veon Bell figures to do what significant injuries earlier this season to Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Kelvin Beachum, Cortez Allen, Will Allen, Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt didn't do:
Take down the Steelers and sabotage their playoff chances.
The AFC North Division race already is over. The Cincinnati Bengals made sure of that when they beat the Steelers, 16-10, at Heinz Field on a day Roethlisberger, in his first game back after missing 4½ games because of a knee injury, threw three interceptions and the Steelers took 10 penalties. The Bengals are 7-0, the Steelers 4-4. The Steelers will play the second half of the season for a wild card.
But all of that seemed secondary to Bell's injury. Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, playing in his first game in more than a year after his own knee injury, rolled over Bell's right leg when he dragged him down early in the second quarter after an 8-yard pass play. It's the second time in two home games against the Bengals that Bell went down with a right knee injury. He hyperextended the knee in the final regular-season game of 2014 when he was tackled low by safety Reggie Nelson. That injury forced Bell to sit out the playoff game the next week against the Baltimore Ravens, leaving the Steelers offense impotent. This injury appeared to be much worse. The mood in the Steelers locker room after the game hinted that it was season-ending.
"I'm going to pray for my guy, Le'Veon," defensive end Cam Heyward said.
"It just [stinks] for him to go down the way he did."
Williams steps in: It's a potentially, if not likely, devastating blow for the Steelers. Bell is the NFL's best running back. DeAngelo Williams stepped in for him Sunday and had a 55-yard run. Williams also did a nice job filling in for Bell in the first two games this season when Bell was out because of a marijuana suspension. Williams had 41 carries for 204 yards and three touchdowns.
"I'm used to being that guy," said Williams, a longtime starter with the Carolina Panthers his first nine NFL seasons.
"Injuries are 100 percent of the game. It's always an emotional blow when you lose any guy, let alone a star like Le'Veon Bell. It was tough to see him laying on the ground. He's not just a teammate. He's family
"I just want to step in and try to do my job the best I can do my job, not like Le'Veon does his job because I think we're two different runners. He brings a different dimension to the team. I've just got to make sure I go in there and be productive in the backfield and take pressure off Ben."
The Steelers are lucky to have Williams. He understood and accepted his role behind Bell a lot better than LeGarrette Blount did last season. But Williams is no Bell. It's reasonable to think the Steelers might have won Sunday with Bell.
"Bell's ability to be a receiver out of the backfield is as good as there is in the National Football League," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "So they did lose a little bit of that dimension."
Williams' drop on a third-down pass late in the first quarter of the Steelers' previous game against the Kansas City Chiefs was a big part of that 23-13 loss.
Roethlisberger blames himself: By now, Roethlisberger almost certainly realizes how much losing Bell hurts the offense. After the game, he was too upset with himself to think about the big picture. "I let this team down and I let the fans down. This one is on me," he said.
But if Roethlisberger is starting to feel as if this is one of those rotten seasons, it's hard to blame him. The Steelers lost Pouncey, their All-Pro center, to a knee injury in the preseason, then lost Beachum, their left tackle, against the Arizona Cardinals Oct. 18. That's 40 percent of their offensive line. Roethlisberger was out with his knee injury. Wide receiver Martavis Bryant missed the first four games because of a drug suspension and the fifth because of a minor knee injury. Throw in all of the injuries to the defensive players. The 4-4 record seems about right.
It's unfortunate because the Steelers started the season with expectations of their offense scoring 30 points a game. With Landry Jones in for Roethlisberger in Kansas City, they scored just 13. Without Bell Sunday for almost three quarters, it was 10.
The loss to the Bengals seemed especially hurtful because, for the first time this season, Roethlisberger, Bell, Bryant and All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown started a game together. They barely made it through one quarter before Bell went down and out. It seems unlikely the four will be together again this season.
"The injury bug has got us a bit," Roethlisberger said. "That is the game of football."
To quote Heyward, it [stinks] at times.